The so-called January effect, in which small-cap stocks have tended to outperform large-cap stocks at the start of each year, is not evoking the same bold confidence that it has during more predictable market periods.
"Small-cap stocks do tend to benefit from the increased attention that investors pay to their stock portfolios at the beginning of each year," acknowledged Tom Jacobs, lead adviser for Motley Fool Special Ops (a special situations and opportunistic value service) in Marfa, Texas. "Having said that, however, a number of factors such as Europe's problems are really freaking out investors right now."
For example, his current favorite small-cap stock, Canadian-based Primero Mining Corp. (PPP), is actually a play on precious metals. That company owns Mexico's highly productive San Dimas gold and silver mine; its cash flow equals its market capitalization; it carries little debt; and it has stated its intention to expand its metals assets in the Americas.
Investor nervousness about stocks of all sizes has encouraged the managers of some of the better-performing small-cap portfolios to aggressively seek out stocks they consider currently undervalued.
"Investors should remember that, in an improving economic environment, small caps tend to outperform large-cap stocks," said Matthew Hart, portfolio manager of the $1.1 billion Invesco Van Kampen Small Cap Growth Fund A (VASCX), which has a three-year annualized return of 13 percent.
But while small caps are capable of supplying high growth and high returns, the economic sensitivity of these companies can never be disregarded, Hart cautioned.
"Small-cap stocks still look good and their valuations are reasonable when compared to large-cap stocks," said William McVail, portfolio manager of the Turner Small Cap Growth Fund (TSCEX), which has a three-year annualized return of 21 percent. "We like the energy sector and especially the natural gas plays."
The small-cap choices they prefer feature unique characteristics.
One example owned by both Hart and McVail is Clean Harbors Inc. (CLH), one of the nation's largest providers of environmental services. As the largest operator of non-nuclear hazardous waste disposal in North America, Clean Harbors serves more than 50,000 customers.
Strong financially with modest debt, Clean Harbors has the assets, facilities and expertise that are difficult for competitors to match. McVail considers Clean Harbors especially well-positioned to profit from hydraulic fracturing — the method by which natural gas is released from shale rock. That practice has evoked controversy as its environmental, health and safety impacts are debated.
Insight Capital Research and Management Inc. in Walnut Creek, Calif., also recommends Clean Harbors. Insight Capital's CEO and CIO Jim Collins, a longtime small-cap expert, predicts that "2012 will be a stock picker's market," requiring "discipline and patience." Health care, technology and energy are Collins' favored small-cap themes for the year.
Collins' two other favorite small-caps are unique: Questcor Pharmaceuticals (QCOR), which develops medications for central nervous system disorders such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, and Silicon Motion Technology Corp. (SIMO), which manufactures graphics, video and audio applications for products ranging from handheld devices to LCD products and whose clients include the likes of Hewlett-Packard and Intel.
"I see the employment picture improving in 2012, and I believe we're in the sixth or seventh inning of the bad housing environment," said McVail of Turner Small Cap Growth. "For example, we have a portfolio holding in TrueBlue Inc. (TBI), a blue-collar staffing company in Tacoma, Wash., and any turn in the economy is going to be reflected in a company like this."
TrueBlue, with most of its branch offices located in the U.S., primarily sends manual-labor temps to small and midsize businesses. With strong finances, no debt and plenty of cash, its business model and brand are well-respected.
The top portfolio holdings of Turner Small Cap Growth were recently Healthspring Inc., Taleo Corp. A, Genesee & Wyoming Inc., The Finish Line Inc., Clean Harbors Inc., Questcor Pharmaceuticals, SuccessFactors Inc., Cubist Pharmaceuticals, Northern Oil & Gas Inc. and WellCare Health Plans. This "no-load" (no sales charge) fund requires a $2,500 minimum initial investment.
While an economic upturn is still not a certainty, it would make a positive difference for small-cap stocks in 2012.
"The U.S. consumer is gradually improving, and the employment picture, while not great, is at least stabilizing," says Hart of Invesco Van Kampen Small Cap Growth. "What we haven't seen on the consumer side is wage growth and, once we start to see that, I think the picture will improve even more."